Entire trucks began disappearing that summer, vanishing into the belly of the Dasht-e-Margo, the great Desert of Death which sprawls across south-western Afghanistan. Local traders soon learned where they’d gone. In 2015, Western forces had ended combat operations in Afghanistan, handing over responsibility to the country’s military. The Taliban re-emerged in weeks, and began demanding a share of the revenue from goods rolling east down the Indian-built Route 606, from the border with Iran at Zaranj over the Helmand river, to Delaram and on to Kabul.
In 2017, the traders of Zaranj—transformed by Route 606 into one of Afghanistan’s wealthiest and best-educated towns—petitioned the Governor of Nimruz, Muhammad Samiullah, to find some way to end the hijacking of their trucks.
Late that year, an ethnic-Baluch trader began sitting in the Zaranj customs house, next to the government’s own agents, collecting duties for Taliban. The year after that, the Taliban discovered the trader was swindling them; he was jailed and find $1.6million. Then, the Taliban set up their own customs house, down the highway at Ghorghory.
Zaranj fell to the Taliban on 6 August, the first of the country’s district centres to collapse as the Islamist group’s forces swept east and north, eventually seizing the entire country. There was almost no resistance in Zaranj: the battalion-sized detachment from the Lashkargah-headquartered 215 Corps, as well as local police, withdrew after a deal brokered by the local business community. Forces in nearby Kang, which did resist, were annihilated; soldiers were reportedly tortured and their eyes gouged out.
Ever since the Taliban’s triumph, observers have been asking how Afghanistan’s 300,000-strong security forces—including a 180,000-strong army, and small air force—collapsed so easily. The story of Zaranj helps understand that the downfall in fact began years ago. For three reasons—its resourcing of forces, logistics, and the Taliban’s cross-border sanctuaries in Pakistan—the Afghan army never had a fighting chance.
The media’s telling of the story is that Afghan troops, fearful for their lives, just cut and run—but the story isn’t that simple. The Afghan army did collapse—but in some key senses, it was designed and hard-wired to fail.
1. Logistics and infrastructure
Logisticians aren’t sexy: no one has ever made a movie about the officers hunched over desks, calculating how many trucks are needed to move fuel, food and munitions to the front line, and how to get them there. The unglamorous truth, though, is that this boring business is more crucial to winning wars than swashbuckling Generals: scholars like Robert Citino have shown Nazi Germany’s defeat at the hands of the Soviet Union was a debacle of logistics.
For years, experts were warning about the state of the Afghan military’s logistics—but no one listened.
In 2015—the first year after the transition to Afghan-led military operations—the country’s military found itself scattered across thousands of pickets and outposts. Estimates suggest the Afghan police had committed over half its strength of 1,47,000 to these pickets; the army, some 53,000 personnel, or a third of its forces. As little as 10 to 15 strong, these pickets were easily surrounded by Taliban and overrun.
Through 2017-2018, the number of these outposts declined, but a new problem emerged. Evacuating pickets meant large swathes of rural territory were ceded to the Taliban, and the roads connecting significant military positions came under insurgent control.
Fuel was one particular problem. In a report issued in July, the United States’ Special Inspector-General for Afghan Reconstruction pointed out that “fraud, waste, and abuse in the fuel enterprise have created a tenuous situation for the U.S. and Afghan governments”. Almost half of the fuel allocated to the Afghan military, one commander told them, was being stolen. “Without fuel, ANDSF operations will come to a grinding halt”.
Even though the Inspector-General’s office had been pressing the issue since 2018, the United States military commanders responsible for supplying fuel to Afghan forces did not act to ensure a smooth transition. From April 2021, the Afghan military’s fuel supply lines simply disintegrated.
The same problem manifested itself in a number of other critical sectors. For years, vehicles supplied by the United States to Afghan forces were simply junked, since the cost of repairs and maintenance was too high. Training of mechanics had begun by 2017, but their numbers remained inadequate; there were, moreover, chronic problems with securing reliable supplies of tools and spare parts.
In the spring, when the Taliban offensive began, large numbers of vehicles that broke down simply could not be repaired, especially in more remote regions.
The Afghan air force, critical to compensating for some of these weaknesses, disintegrated this summer. Even though ground forces relied on aircraft like the A29 Super Tucano for support, the first class of trained Afghan maintenance personnel for the A-29s only graduated in December, 2015. At the end of 2016, the AAF still lacked the required numbers of pilots and maintenance personnel; the support of private-sector contractors would have been needed until at least 2023.
2. The problem of insurgent sanctuaries
From the outset, planning for the Afghan military did not include capacities to guard the border with Pakistan. This meant the Afghan armed forces had no capacities to stem the replenishment Taliban ranks from cadre trained and raised across the border. The military also had little capacity to target the Taliban’s logistics lines. The contrast with the Indian Army’s experience in Jammu and Kashmir is stark: of an estimated 352,000 soldiers serving in the troubled region, over 300,000 are used to plug the Line of Control.
American strategic planners understood the problem. In 2011, then-chairman of the United States joint chiefs of staff, Mike Mullen, testified that the Taliban “operate from Pakistan with impunity”. “Extremist organisations serving as proxies of the government of Pakistan are attacking Afghan troops and civilians as well as US soldiers”, he complained.
Yet, the United States did little. Islamabad was of significance to the country’s strategic interests in West Asia, as well as China. Afghanistan wasn’t.
The Soviet Union’s experience of the same problem helps understand the military dilemma. In 1982, the former KGB officer Vladimir Kuzitchkin has revealed, the Soviet military contemplated plans to seal the border with Pakistan, by building a chain of watchtowers and minefields, and then use airborne troops to “annihilate the partisan formations shut up in Afghanistan”.
For the plan to succeed, though, some 300,000 Soviet troops would have had to be committed to Afghanistan, far more than the political leadership was willing to countenance.
Instead, the Soviet military struck at Mujahideen convoys and logistics, using air power. They carpet-bombed agricultural infrastructure and villages in a 50 kilometre exclusion-zone along the border. In August, 1985, crack Soviet troops struck at Mujahideen infrastructure in Parachinar, and again at Zhawar the following year.
The assaults significantly degraded the Mujahideen’s ability to fight—but only for a time. Lacking adequate numbers of troops, the Soviets could never hold the ground they cleared.
At a meeting of the Soviet Politburo in November 1986, Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko observed: “Too long ago we spoke on the fact that it is necessary to close off the border of Afghanistan with Pakistan and Iran. Experience has shown that we were unable to do this in view of the difficult terrain of the area and the existence of hundreds of passes in the mountains”.
“The Soviets had come to recognise that if they could not close the border—or would not expend the resources necessary even to try—the war boiled down to who was willing to fight it out the longest”, scholar Thomas Bruscino has noted. “With this recognition came the decision to withdraw”.
3. Leadership and institutions
For many years after 9/11, few thought Afghan military capacity needed to be developed. Early on, as the Taliban pulled back into Pakistan, the threat seemed minimal; planners, believed foreign troops would be more-or-less indefinitely employed. Fahim Khan, the Mujahideen veteran who led Afghan’s defence ministry after 9/11, advocated for a 350,000-strong military; he was ignored. “The United States believed that the greatest threat to Afghanistan’s stability was factional fighting, not Pakistan,” an official report notes.
A rule-of-thumb principle is that combating insurgencies requires one soldier or police officer for a population of 50; in Afghanistan, that would have meant some 500,000 personnel. Instead, international donors offered to fund a 70,000-strong army, and 62,000-strong police force.
In 2006, when the Taliban insurgency resurfaced, there were barely 60,000 Afghan policemen and troops in place. The United States scrambled to build up the numbers of Afghan forces. The results weren’t roseate: personnel were recruited and deployed with little or no training, and leadership was poor. Less than half the Afghan military, notably, was even literate.
Then, in 2009, president Barack Obama’s government surged troops in a bid to contain the growing insurgency, only begin pulling them out two years later. “The military surge slowed the momentum of the Taliban in key areas,” scholar Ali Jalali has observed. “A counterinsurgency campaign, however, required patience and time to succeed. The surge troops took about six months to deploy, and they began withdrawing in July, 2011.”
Even though funding was lavished on the Afghan military, there just wasn’t time for it to develop a stable institutional culture, and allow it to operate independently.
“Like it or not,” US army officer Major David Park has written, “Afghan National Army doctrine is a carbon copy of US doctrine,” Afghan officers, he noted, became “addicted to close air support” over time, having been taught it was essential to success. Moreover, Afghan army units were “trained and mentored to rely on close air support when fighting”, but the realities of the Afghan Air Force meant the necessary resources just weren’t available.
In 2014, the United States and British troops pulled out of Helmand, leaving the responsibility to the 215 Corps. Within months, the new order began to disintegrate. The Taleban had captured 12 of Helmand province’s 14 districts by 2016 and then encircled Lashkargah. As the Taliban surged forward, the Afghan military staged a succession of so-called “tactical retreats”, abandoning ever more territory.
“The twice-weekly commercial flights from Kabul were all but empty,” scholar Andrew Quilty recorded. “The return flights were full.”
In 2017, small numbers of United States troops—backed by substantial airpower—succeeded in stabilising the front in Helmand. In rural areas across the country, though, the Taliban continued to expand. The Afghan military was slowly encircled in an insurgent sea, its lines of supply choked, unable to hold territory.
Long before Kabul fell this month, the Afghan military instruments of the state had for all practical purposes disintegrated.